Southeast Asia finds itself in a favorable position of being courted simultaneously by both Taipei and Beijing, which raises the question of whether Taiwan’s and China’s diplomatic tug of war in Africa, Latin America, and Oceania will lead to intensified competition between the two in Southeast Asia. President Tsai dismisses the possibility that Southeast Asia will be a new and heated arena of political friction between Taiwan and China. Tsai recently stated: “The New Southbound Policy (新南向政策) isn’t about making a political statement in the region… Let me repeat: It is not about geopolitics. It is about economics and trade.” Unfortunately, it may not solely be up to her administration to decide how the policy will be perceived and received, since Beijing and Southeast Asia will necessarily have a say.
Despite the Tsai Administration’s declared intentions, there is mounting evidence that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路) are pushing up against one another in Southeast Asia. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesman Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光) has already accused Taiwan’s new policy of being a politically motivated attempt to pivot away from the PRC market and suggested that it was a means to promote independence. Indeed, Taiwan’s official New Southbound Policy Work Plan states up front that one key reason to look south is because China’s economy is restructuring, its regulatory system is adjusting, labor costs are rising, and its economy is slowing. However, that Taiwan would want to diversify its options does not necessarily mean that Taipei is giving up on doing business in China.
To make matters political, China and Vietnam signed a joint statement on May 15 at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which presents another challenge to Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. The Voice of Vietnam wrote that Vietnam pledged to “persistently respect the one China principle, support the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and China’s unification cause, and resolutely oppose any Taiwanese independence activities in any form.” An unnamed Chinese official told the Chinese-language United Daily News specifically that the China-Vietnam joint statement is intended to thwart the New Southbound Policy.
In another case, China lodged a strong complaint with India about a rare visit by a three-member Taiwanese legislative delegation in February, warning New Delhi to follow the “one-China” policy and refrain from any official contacts with Taipei. To be sure, the “China factor” is a key spoiler for the success of the New Southbound Policy.
Under these circumstances, Taiwan can play to its advantage by highlighting how the New Southbound Policy emphasizes two-way trade compared to China’s emphasis on simply finding an export market for its goods. Former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce, James Zimmerman, said of China’s Belt and Road Forum held May 11-15, “Tell us what we are going to get out of this. It’s a nonstarter if it’s all about bringing Chinese goods to Europe, or if it’s all one way.” On the contrary, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy specifically plans for “two way reciprocity,” “economy and trade cooperation,” “talent exchange,” and “resource sharing.” To illustrate, Taiwan’s imports from ASEAN countries grew from $21 billion to $28 billion between 2005 and 2015, and its exports to ASEAN also concurrently rose from $27 billion to $50 billion.
In spite of the economic imperative for the New Southbound Policy, China is pushing back against it. In the face of Beijing’s pressure, Taiwan should not shy away from advertising Taiwanese goods and services, or its tourist attractions through traditional media such as billboards, television, and the internet. Beijing can do little to thwart traditional types of advertisements that rely predominantly on buying advertising space.
However, Taiwan should take a different approach when high-level elite politics is involved. Under these conditions, it would be wise to cooperate quietly with Southeast Asian governments when the situation calls for discretion.
Two months ago, Tainan city mayor Lai Ching-Te (賴清德) led a delegation of chancellors and representatives from 12 Tainan universities to Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia to meet with government officials. The relatively low-key visit was a success, that ended with nine memoranda signed. The trip was successful precisely because it included Taiwanese education leaders on the team, did not employ big and flashy banners to announce their arrival, and refrained from naming their specific interlocutors. This experience offers a method for successfully holding government-to-government meetings, which can then open doors for trade, bring additional international students to Taiwan’s universities, or even enable Taiwanese officials to assist and advocate for Taiwanese businesses in the region.
Around the same time as Mayor Lai’s visit to Southeast Asia, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) made a similar trip to Malaysia in late March. Mayor Ko’s visit was met with more pressure than Mayor Lai. The Malaysia side explicitly mentioned that it wanted to work together in a low-key way. However, unlike Mayor Lai, Mayor Ko’s arrival was marked with large permanent banners and murals of Taiwan-Malaysia cooperation that filled entire office building foyers. While visiting delegations usually involve an element of fanfare, it is more effective for Taiwan to take a discreet approach due to political sensitivities. Ko’s mission also lacked the specific functional focus on education present in Lai’s trip, which featured a delegation of university leaders, and thus raised fewer political concerns. It also did not help that a newspaper article published in the middle of his trip explicitly mentioned that Mayor Ko’s Southeast Asia tour, in addition to the promotion of Taipei City tourism and urban exchange, was also believed to be “shoulder[ing] a more political diplomatic relations work.” Mayor Ko could only repeat his euphemism, “We are the their guests, so we should go with what is convenient for them,” in the face of several meeting cancellations from his foreign hosts.
The Tsai Administration’s non-confrontational approach with its New Southbound Policy is the right one, since the ideal outcome for Taiwan is that all benefit from increased trade and cooperation in the region without confrontation. According to a Taiwanese legislator, the “New Southbound Policy” does not conflict with China’s “Belt and Road” initiative because it was not created to foster rivalry with other nations. “We are not kindergarten kids making others choose to be friends with one side and not another. If the New Southbound Policy is successful, a broadening of cooperation would benefit all three sides,” he said, referring to Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asian countries. Though Taiwan wants to develop trade and people-to-people exchanges with the Southeast Asia, free of geopolitical considerations, others may not see it that way. Therefore, Taiwan should consider strategies and counterstrategies to effectively achieve its goals.
The Main Point: Though the Tsai Administration emphasizes trade and not geopolitics in its New Southbound Policy, it should prepare for political roadblocks in Southeast Asia, and effectively overcome challenges by emphasizing two way trade and government-to-government cooperation in specific functional areas.